Gundestrup Cauldron


The name CERIDWEN has had various forms and implications. Can we say which most clearly relates to its origin? The spelling with one ‘r’ given in this opening sentence is the most common in modern Welsh usage both as a given name and as a rendering of the name as used by the early Welsh bards. But CERRIDWEN is also often used by those referring to the character in the Tale of Taliesin and associated references in legendary texts. An attempt to unravel the uncertain origins of the name was made by Marged Haycock in 2003 where she also catalogued the various forms of the name in the early texts* . These mainly occur in manuscripts which have been dated to the Thirteenth Century, though they may, of course, be using earlier forms or 13th century adaptations of earlier forms. The Black Book of Carmarthen gives ‘Kyrridven’. Peniarth 3 gives ‘Kyrrytuen’, The Book of Taliesin variously gives ‘Cerituen’, ‘Kerrituen’ and ‘Kerritwen’, while the Red Book of Hergest gives ‘Kerituen’. So ‘-fen’ is the most common termination (a mutated form of archaic ‘ben’ : ‘woman’) and ‘rr’ is more common rather than the single ‘r’ of modern Welsh spelling. Whether the variations are due to different spelling patterns at different times and places, or by different scribes, or whether the different forms reflect developments in speech pronounciation is unclear. The difference between the ‘C’ and the ‘K’ initial consonant is clearly simply a matter of a different spelling convention to represent the hard ‘c’ sound. But the the following vowel, ‘y’ or ‘e’ could well represent a shift in actual pronounciation of the vowel sound.

Later examples include: ‘Cereidven’, ‘Cyridven’, ‘Caridwen’, ‘Cridwen’ and ‘Cridfen’.

Elis Gruffydd uses ‘K/Ceridwen’ in his 16th century version of the prose tale of how Gwion Bach became Taliesin, and K/Caridwen is also found in other sources of this tale. Hence Charlotte Guest’s popularisation of ‘Caridwen’ in the translation included in her Mabinogion.

What about possible meanings of the name? Ifor Williams ** asserted that ‘Cyrridfen’ is the most likely original form from ‘cwrr’ (bent, angled..?): ‘cwrr-rhid-ben’ (= woman with an angled joint, or ‘crooked back’) so fitting the stereotype of a witch; but later scholars since have thrown some doubt on this interpretation.

Marged Haycock also discusses:
-the first syllable as ‘cyr’ which could relate to ‘crynu’ so Cyridfen could be like the Gwrach Cors Fochno that makes people shake or shiver
-the first syllable as ‘crid’, judged to be “difficult” but ‘craid’ ( for ‘graid’) (passionate, fierce, powerful) is possible
-the second syllable as ‘ŷd’ (corn, relating her to a corn goddess like Ceres as some earlier antiquarians had supposed)
– her daughter Creirwy, with the first syllable a form of ‘credu’ (belief’) and so, by analogy, her mother’s name as Credidfen would mean ‘woman to be believed in’, making the mother’s and daughter’s name stems a pair.

None of this is conclusive. Nor is there any surviving early evidence of divine origin as no references to her before the 13th century manuscripts exist and all references since seem to be based either on those manuscripts or the later prose tale which itself stems from them, or is an elaboration of more detailed earlier sources which have not survived. Many have, nonetheless, experienced her as divine or chosen to characterise her a witch or powerful enchantress on the basis of interpretation of the prose tale and the reference to her later in that tale by Taliesin when he says, “I was nine months in the womb of the witch Ceridwen”.

What the earlier poems emphasise is, rather, her keeping of the cauldron of awen and so a source of poetic inspiration. In the prose tale, she gives birth to Taliesin and then ceases to be part of the tale. In the bardic tradition this giving birth to Taliesin may be seen as inspiring his presence and inspiring bards to sing in his name. Certainly, many of them asserted this. Cuhelyn Fardd (1100-1130) spoke off being inspired by “awddl Cyridfen”, while Cynddelw Prydydd Mawr (1155-1200) acknowledged “Cyridfen” as the source of his art and Prydydd y Moch at the beginning of the 13th century specifically mentions the cauldron of “Cyridfen” as the source of the gift of awen. These and other references by identified bards are of course in addition to the many references by unidentified bards in The Book of Taliesin.

*Marged Haycock ‘Cadair Ceridwen’ yn Cyfoeth y Testun 148-> (Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 2003)
**Ifor Williams Chwedl Taliesin (Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1957)